Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Do The "Right" Thing

Mike Vaccaro has some, um, interesting suggestions as to what the Mets should do in the wake of the injury that Francisco Rodriguez "almost certainly" sustained when he assaulted the grandfather of his children last week:
So K-Rod is kaput for now, and now the Mets must prove they have the intestinal fortitude for more. If ever there was a situation that screamed for a baseball club to do the right thing, to send an unbending message, it is now.

First, they have to fight to void that portion of the contract that will coincide with his time away from the team. That means the rest of this year, at a minimum.

And then they have to rid themselves of the headache for good. If that means exiling Rodriguez in the offseason — a move that would almost certainly entail them having to eat most of his remaining deal — that’s fine. If that means going after the balance of the contract in what would be a precedent-setting move the commissioner’s office would probably rather them not fight — even better.
Obviously, the Mets are going to do what they can to void this year's portion of the contract, because I'm pretty sure that if Aaron Boone tearing his knee apart playing basketball negates his deal with the Yankees, injuries sustained while punching someone in the face (if they can prove that) would do the trick for K-Rod.

But is Vaccarro really suggesting that the Mets should eat Rodriguez's 2011 salary of $11.5M and a buyout of $3.5M in order to "do the right thing" and "send an unbending message"? What message would that be and who would it be directed towards, exactly? That would be a pretty damn expensive statement to make. It would be way cheaper to just take out a full page ad in every newspaper in New York.

The bottom line is that, in the world of guaranteed contracts, getting "fired" doesn't really mean anything, because you still get paid, so the intended message wouldn't even be reaching the person at the center of this whole embarrassing episode: K-Rod. The deal he signed with the Mets before the 2009 season was worth $37M. Although we are desensitized to those kinds of numbers because of the megadeals that other guys sign, that is still generational wealth.

If Rodriguez never gets another dime or playing baseball after this, he is still set for life. However, even if the Mets send the sort of bullshit "message" that Vaccaro is talking about, some other team is invariably going to give him a shot because he can get Major League hitters out. That's how sports work. It's not about morality, it's about winning (and the money).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Morrow's Sorrow Recalls Stieb's Near No-Nos

Good morning Fackers. Despite merely splitting this weekend's four game wrap around series against the Red Sox, things couldn't have gone much better for the Yankees over the past four days. The split against Boston leaves the Yankees six games up on their archrivals with more than two thirds of the season completed. It's far, far too early to start counting magic numbers, but as the wounded Red Sox continue to limp along, this weekend's series pushed them four games closer to elimination.

Of greater importance to the Yankees right now is the favor that the Blue Jays performed for them over the weekend, sweeping the Rays in a three game series, allowing the Yanks to extend their lead over Tampa Bay by a game and a half. Toronto snuck by with a narrow 2-1 victory on Friday; dropped a 17-11 beatdown on Saturday, featuring eight home runs by the offense and a four for five, eleven total base debut by J.P. Arencibia; then took another pitcher's duel with 1-0 victory on Sunday.

It's of course Sunday's game that is most memorable, as Toronto starter Brendan Morrow came within one out of being the third pitcher to no hit Tampa Bay this season, and the fourth in the last thirteen months. Morrow was masterful, striking out a 2010 MLB high 17 batters, walking just two, allowing just six balls out of the infield, and losing his no-no on an infield single by Evan Longoria with two outs in the top of the night.

The instant Longoria reached first base safely, my thoughts immediately turned to former Toronto ace Dave Stieb, something that wasn't lost on the good folks at Big League Stew as they recapped the game yesterday. The heartbreak suffered by Morrow yesterday and Armando Galarraga earlier this year is something the Jays' mustachioed and criminally underrated 80's ace could relate to all too well. And the Yankees played a role in two of Stieb's near misses.

In 1988, Stieb carried no hitters into the ninth inning in both of his final two starts. In Cleveland on September 24th, Stieb struck out Andy Allanson leading off the ninth, then got Willie Upshaw to ground out. With just one out separating him from a no hitter, Stieb faced Indian's leadoff hitter and future batting champ Julio Franco. Already thirty years old at the time and with nearly twenty years left on his Major League career, the jheri curled second baseman took a ball, then two strikes, then fouled off three straight pitches before working the count even at 2-2. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Stieb's 123rd on the night, Franco bounced a base hit through the middle. Stieb then retired Dave Clark to the end game, settling on a one hit, two walk, 1-0 victory nearly identical to Morrow's outing Sunday.

Six days later, in the opening game of Toronto's final series on the season, Stieb took the mound at Exhibition Stadium as the Jays hosted Baltimore. Once again, Stieb was outstanding. He was perfect through six and a third, with his lone walk of the day being erased on a subsequent double play. Facing the bottom of the order of a feeble Baltimore team that would finish a Major League worst 54-107, Stieb once again came within one out of a no-no. Both Brady Anderson and Jeff Stone tapped back to Stieb. With just one out to go, O's skipper Frank Robinson sent Jim Traber to pinch hit for rookie third baseman Craig Worthington. To that point, Traber was just one for eight against Stieb in his career. But Traber lined a 2-2 pitch to right field for Baltimore's first hit, and for the second time in as many starts, Stieb had his heart broken just one strike away from finishing a no hitter.

His luck didn't get any better in 1989. He started in Kansas City in the second game of the season, and held the Royals to four hits, two walks, and a lone run over eight frames, but his offense could only manage one run of their own, courtesy of a solo homer by Jesse Barfield, who was just 25 days away from being traded to the Yankees. For the ninth inning, Stieb gave way to Todd Stottlemyre, son of former Yankee ace and future Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. After getting two outs, Stottlemyre surrendered a double to future Yankee Danny Tartabull and a single to former Yankee first round pick Pat Tabler, allowing KC to walk off with a 2-1 win. But compared to his two previous starts and his next start, Stieb's hard luck no-decision in Kansas City was nothing.

Five days later, Stieb took to the hill at Yankee Stadium in the opening game of a three game series. Again, Stieb would allow just one hit. This time at least, he got it out of the way early, yielding a fifth inning single to Jamie Quirk.

Stieb wouldn't have any more near misses until four months later, when he faced the Yankees at Skydome on August 4th. This was perhaps Stieb's best start of all. He needed just 82 pitches to retire the first twenty six batters he faced, eleven by strikeout. For the third time in eleven months, Stieb stood a lone out away from a no hitter. If he could retire the young Yankee center fielder Roberto Kelly, he would complete just the eleventh perfect game in baseball's modern era.

Kelly was in the midst of his first full season as the Yankee center fielder. He made a brief cameo in 1987 and entered 1988 as the starting center fielder. But after a slow start, he lost his job to Claudell Washington, and by July he was back in Columbus. 1989 was a different story. With Washington having signed with the Angels in the off-season, center field was Kelly's to lose. This time, he got off to a strong start, and with Dave Winfield out for the year following back surgery and Rickey Henderson's contract demands resulting in a June trade back to Oakland, Kelly was the Yankees best outfielder on that woeful '89 team and the best player outside of Don Mattingly. As he stepped in against Stieb with two outs in the ninth, he was batting .328/.389/.448.

Not quite nine years old at the time, I can recall watching the game with my father. At some point in the ninth inning, referencing Stieb's tough luck over the previous year, Dad predicted the Yanks would find a way to spoil Stieb's night. Kelly got ahead 2-0, then lined a double down the left field line. Steve Sax followed with a single to spoil Stieb's shutout. A groundout from Luis Polonia put an end to the game, but once again Stieb had come so close without sealing the deal.

In a span of 25 starts, Stieb had pitched three one hitters and a two hitter. Three times he had lost a no hitter with just one out to go, one of them a would-be perfect game. In the history of baseball, just four men (Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Virgil Trucks, and Nolan Ryan) have pitched two no hitters in one season. Stieb was four batters away from recording four within eleven months. Over the four starts, Stieb tossed 36 innings, allowed five hits, one run, seven walks, and recorded twenty eight strike outs, four complete games, and three shutouts. Still he failed to get his name into the record books.

Just over a year later, Stieb would finally break through. The 1990 season, much like this year, was marked by an unusually high number of no-nos. As Stieb made his start on September 2nd, there had been six already on the season, not including the Yankees' Andy Hawkins' lost no-hitter against Chicago on July 1st nor future Yankee Melido Perez' rain shortened no-no against the Yankees on July 12th.

Facing the Indians at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the site of his first heartbreaker nearly two years earlier, Stieb recorded the seventh and final no hitter of 1990, and the first in Blue Jay history. He walked four, but struck out nine, getting Jerry Browne to line out to right for that elusive twenty seventh out.

Stieb pitched two more injury plagued seasons for the Jays before signing a free agent deal with the White Sox. He made just four appearances in a Chicago uniform before being released less than two months into the season. He spent four full years out of baseball before resurfacing with Toronto as a 40 year old swingman in 1998. His second to last Major League appearance came on September 20th, against Tampa Bay, the team Morrow nearly no hit Sunday. Stieb came on in relief of a Blue Jay making his Big League debut: Roy Halladay, who of course tossed a perfect game of his own earlier this season.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Waka Waka Walking Papers

The Fozzie Bear bad joke of a season continues in Seattle, as manager Don Wakamatsu has reportedly been handed his walking papers. We've touched on their season a few times earlier this year, and I'm still amazed that a club that generated this much buzz in the off-season has not only played this poorly, but has done so in a such an amazingly self-destructive fashion: naps in the clubhouse, fights in the dugout, falls in the bathroom, reported player mutiny, and no offense to speak of between the lines.

Oh, and just to rub salt in the wound: Justin Smoak, the prospect Jack Zduriencik preferred to Jesus Montero as the return centerpiece for Cliff Lee, was optioned to AAA a week ago after hitting just .159/.169/.270 with Seattle following the deal. Montero, meanwhile, has hit .347/.446/.622 since the start of July.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Game 108: What I'm Here 4

The last time the Yankees and the Red Sox squared off it was for a two game set in the middle of May which, somewhat incredibly, was 68 games ago. At the conclusion of that series (which was a split), the Yanks held a 5-3 edge in the season tilt, were 4.5 games ahead of the Sox but three in back of the Rays. Plenty of ebbs and flows have occurred since then, but entering play today, New York sits atop the standings by the slimmest of margins (1/2 game) and the Sox are a distant six back (seven in the loss column).

We are entering the point in the season when series, especially four game ones, can be potentially pivotal. By the time the game on Monday night reaches its conclusion, the Yanks could be anywhere from two to ten games ahead of their arch rivals with about 50 to go, including six head-to-head in the last two weeks of the season. That could be the difference between a nerve-wracking fight for the Wild Card or a relatively leisurely stroll towards the finish line.

Of course, in all likelihood, the margin will be four (Sox take three of four), six (a 2-2 split), or eight (Yanks win 3) all of which leave the picture much more murky than if one team finds a way to finagle all four.

The pressure is clearly on the Sox to make up some ground in this series, but all eyes will be on our boy Javy Vazquez tonight. The Yankees went to great lengths to make sure that Javy didn't start against Boston earlier this year when he was pitching terribly, although he did vulture a win when he struck out da' Yooooooouuuukkk in a one batter relief appearance in the top of the 9th inning during the first game of that quick set in May.

The Fackin' Youkstah is done fah the yey-ah after undergoing surgery on a torn abductor muscle in his thumb, so the Sox lineup won't be quite as formidable as it could be. Still, this will be the most important game that Vazquez has pitched in this stint with the Yanks and for better or worse, the results of his outing will hold a disproportionate amount of weight in the eyes of the fans in relation to the seven shutout innings he threw against the Mariners, for instance.

But hey, that's what makes this rivalry great. Those games in Tampa last weekend were probably more important than the four upcoming and certainly felt different from your typical three game series at the end of July. However, they took place in a sterile dome where the crowd was somewhat divided between the home team and the visitors. There will be no such balance tonight as the vast majority of the 48,000 or so that come through the turnstiles will be yelling for the Yanks. This is what it's all about.

It's the message in the song that makes you rock on,
Some people go to places where they don't belong.
Whether wrong or right, a lot of people fight,
But I'm here to bless this mic, aight?

I take action the minute that the crowd gets hype,
I'm type crashin, down like a meteorite,
I'm Bogart-ing, mics and whole stages,
Destroying MC's dreams, from words to whole pages,
Their rapbooks, look more like scrapbooks,
with their fictional fairytales and frail ass hooks.
A lot of shit has happened, since I started rappin',
There's been enough beef, and enough gat clappin',
There's been mad signs, for this brother to heed,
and while some choose greed, I choose to plant seeds,
for your mental, spirit and physical temple,
Bob your head to it, there's the water you've been lead to it,
Bathe in it, a long time you've been cravin it,
Prance to it, use your third eye and glance through it,
Your state of being, becoming advanced through it,
While others rhyme with no reason I be breezin',
Their mics I seize them, then I try 'em for treason,
I used to always like to hang out,
Now I lounge in the rest writin bombs while tracks bang out.
I know you peeped me in the club then,
but now I'm in your speaker, with the voice that you're lovin'.
[Song Notes: Since Guru grew up in Boston and eventually came to New York before making it big, I always look to GangStarr when the Yanks play the Sox. And man, this is my motherfuckin' jam right here. Guru at his finest with a sick D.J. Premier beat (sampled from this Young Holt Unlimited tune) jingling along underneath. Typically, I try not to quote an entire verse of the song, but the whole thing is just so damn smooth and contiguous, there's no logical place to cut it.]



Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hellickson's Debut Causes Flashback

A.J. Burnett's fifth inning meltdown last night, coupled with another win by the Rays has New York and Tampa Bays knotted atop the AL East. The Rays won last night on the strength of an outstanding Major League debut by stud pitching prospect Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson went seven innings of two run ball, allowing just six baserunners and fanning six.

That the touted rookie played such a critical role in the Rays climbing back into first for the first time since June 19th reminded of something that happened during the Yankees' stretch run in 1996.

The Yankees had entered a tie for first place on April 28th and never looked back. Three months later, their lead over Baltimore swelled to an even dozen games. But from July 29th through September 16th, the Yanks went just 22-24 while the O's went a blistering 31-15. As Baltimore came to the Bronx for a critical three game series starting September 18th, the lead had shrunk to just three games. The Yankees sent their ace, sophomore Andy Pettitte, to the mound that night. He carried a 21-8 record as he opposed Baltimore's Scott Erickson.

Baltimore took a 1-0 in the top of the first on the strength of Brady Anderson leadoff double, a sacrifice bunt from Robbie Alomar, and an RBI groundout from Todd Zeile. The Yankees used the same blue print to tie the score in the fifth, with a double from Jim Leyritz, a bunt from Mariano Duncan, and an RBI groundout from Wade Boggs. Eddie Murray then singled home Bobby Bonilla in the seventh to put Baltimore up 2-1.

Down to their final three outs and trailing by a run, the Yankees faced Oriole closer Randy Myers in the ninth. Paul O'Neill drew a leadoff walk. Hobbled by a torn hamstring that would plague him for the remainder of the year, O'Neill was lifted for pinch runner Ruben Rivera.

A cousin of the Yankees then set-up man Mariano Rivera, it was Ruben who was more likely to be the future Hall of Famer as the two came up through the minor league system. Ruben won back-to-back MVP awards in the NY-Penn and South Atlantic Leagues in '93 and '94, was named the Yankees minor league player of the year by Baseball America for three years running, was the #2 overall prospect entering 1995, and the #3 overall entering 1996. Though Derek Jeter had beat Rivera to the punch in becoming a Big League regular, the two were considered equally promising prospects by the organization.

Rivera moved to second when Cecil Fielder walked, then scored the tying run on Bernie Williams' RBI single. Mariano held the fort in the top of the tenth. Ruben was due up fourth in the bottom of the inning.

Derek Jeter led off the inning with a base hit. Charlie Hayes bunted him to second, and Tim Raines' groundout moved him to third. With two outs and the winning run just 90 feet away, Rivera stepped into the box for just his 82nd Major League plate appearance. He was batting an impressive .270/.400/.460 on the season, but had been to the plate just 19 times in the three plus weeks since his last recall, going just four for sixteen with three walks in that time.

Former Yankee Alan Mills was on the mound for Baltimore and had two bases open. But he needed just one out to extend the game for another inning, and he had top of his potent line up due to bat in the top half of the eleventh. Mills was going to go after the rusty rookie rather than take his chances with whoever would pinch hit for Pat Kelly (who had run for Fielder the inning before).

Rivera fouled off the first two pitches, leaving him in an 0-2 hole. He battled back to even the count at 2-2, and on the fifth pitch of the at bat he lofted a hump back liner over the head of Robbie Alomar, giving the Yankees the win. The Yankee lead was back to four games; Baltimore would get no closer over the season's final eleven days.

One week later the Yankees clinched their first division title in fifteen years when they took the first game of a doubleheader from the Brewers, a 19-2 rout. Rivera played right field that day, and despite the blowout score, took a pair of opportunities to show off his rocket right arm. The next day he awoke with shoulder soreness, which eventually required surgery the following spring. He never played for the Yankees after that, instead serving as the centerpiece of the package the Yankees shipped to San Diego for the rights to Hideki Irabu in April 1997.

Rivera never fulfilled his promise in San Diego, or in any of his three other Major League stops. He had a chance to rejoin the Yankees as a back up outfielder in 2002, but blew that opportunity when he stole a glove from Derek Jeter's locker during Spring Training and sold it to a memorabilia dealer. After a brief return to the Yankees' minor league system in 2005, Rivera has spent the past four years posting impressive numbers in the Mexican League.

Just as Rivera did fourteen years, Hellickson helped his team to a big victory last night. For Hellickson's sake I hope he fulfills his promise better than Rivera did. For the Yankees' sake, I hope Hellickson's heroics last night prove less decisive than Rivera's were on that September night against the O's.